It’s Christmas short story time. This one I call “Christmas at the Tastee Freeze”
People weren’t exactly beating the door down to get into Frank’s Tastee Freeze. The entire lunch crowd consisted of the Pomeroy family and Arnold Bounder. The Pomeroys were going to Jack’s sister’s house in Maypole for supper, and Jack thought they’d get some burgers for lunch before heading out.
Four combo meals. One foot long chilidog, two Big Frank burgers and four tacos. Not much of a Christmas fare, but the four Pomeroys seemed pleased. So pleased that both Pomeroy girls squeezed the bicycle horn before leaving. The horn was mounted near the door just below a sign that read, “Honk if you enjoyed your Tastee Freeze experience.”
At the sound of the horn, Ray yelled an enthusiastic, “Yeehah! Y’all come back!”
“Would you pleeeease not do that today?” Kate said. “The Boss is not even here.”
“Do you think I enjoy acting like an idiot? Look, Frank told us to yell when we hear the horn. I don’t ask why. I just do what the boss says. Wouldn’t hurt you to do it now and again.”
“No, your ‘Yeehaw’ can stand on its own.” Kate said.
Ray gave her his raised eyebrow look, and then imitated a detective he once saw in an old black and white movie. “Why, I oughtta pounnnnd you!”
Kate couldn’t hold back the laugh. She never could with Ray. Just didn’t understand why that was. “Look Dilbert,” she said, “One more time, tell me why you let The Boss pressure you into working on Christmas?”
Ray ignored the comment and walked over to the booth where Arnold was staring into his coffee cup. Ray plopped himself down in the seat across from Arnold and looked hard at the guy. “Look, Mr. Bounder. Mr. Bounder, look at me. Please. Here’s what do. Let us get you one of the Santa ice cream cakes from the freezer, you take it home to Mrs. Bounder and the kids and you tell ‘em you’re sorry. That you just had one of those sinking spells, but now you’re all better.”
Mr. Bounder slowly looked up from his coffee cup and gave Ray a smirk. “Ray, you’re a swell kid, but you have no idea.”
“No, idea? Have you ever tasted a Santa ice cream cake? It’s… well it’s gonna change your life. Once you take a bite of that cake you can do nothing but smile. I’m not lying. It’s a group hug magnet! And, best of all, it’s 50 percent off”
Ray yelled across the room. “Kate, grab the Santa cake and ring up $8! No, make it five!” He turned back to Mr. Bounder. “I’m pretty sure Frank plans to let it go for five tomorrow.”
Arnold Bounder climbed out of the booth, handed Ray $5 and then hugged him. “You are absolutely nuts, Raymond. Merry Christmas.”
Kate ran up with the cake. “Merry Christmas, Mr. Bounder. Remember, you’re not alone. Things will get better. Starting with the cake. The beard and the white part of Santa’s hat are vanilla. Everything else is chocolate.”
Ray added, “And if there is any leftover, you know where I live.” Ray walked back to the counter with Kate following close. “So, why did you agree to work today? What could possibly--”
Mr. Bounder grabbed hold of the bicycle horn. “Honk! Honk!” – Ray let out with “Yeehaw! Y’all come back!” Arnold waved as the door closed behind him.
There was the briefest of pauses before Kate gave Ray a slap to the shoulder. “Would you please not do that? Now look, answer my question.”
Ray tossed his dishrag across the counter where it landed in the sink. He gave the universal two-fingers-down sign for two points. He then opened the register and put in the $5 and added 15 of his own.
Why did he volunteer to work on Christmas? Truth is, he told Frank that he’d work, but only if Frank could persuade Kate to help out. He saw it as an opportunity to be alone with the one girl whose company he most enjoyed. A girl who would never see him as more than a hometown friend. At least he could make a memory of the one Christmas they both shared.
Ray was not aware if Frank had grasped the implication of his request, and, for once, he didn’t care. It was indeed a step toward boldness. It was boldness born of desperation. He knew he would soon be headed for Angelo State to start the Spring Semester. He had just finished his Sophomore year at the community college in Childress, and he had only raised enough money for the Spring Semester at San Angelo. He’d figure out the rest later.
“Look, Katy-did, I’ve got no life. I live with my parents, who are, incidentally, at this moment headed to Vernon to visit Aunt Mary in the home. I love my aunt, but can’t take the home. Working Christmas gave me an excuse to miss out this year.”
Suddenly the door of a ’92 gray Buick slammed outside. Slammed twice. A nanosecond after the slams, two boys, eight and six, rushed in and headed straight for the restrooms in the back. The Mom caught the door and meekly smiled as she entered. “Do you know how hard it is to find a restroom on Christmas Day?” she said. “I think you may be it between here and Dallas.”
“You’re just about right,” Ray said. “Can I get you anything?” The lady shook her head. “I’m sorry. Just the restroom.” She sat down at the table nearest the restroom to wait.
Ray wrestled with the notion of pressing just a little. “So, you’ve got family in Dallas? That place is booming.”
She smiled and said, “Uh, no. We’re headed to Longview. I’ve got a brother there who is going to let us stay, till… uh, till things get sorted. I would’ve left earlier, but I had to work last night at the mall in Abilene. Wasn’t that much business on Christmas Eve, but it was good to get the work.”
About that time, the two boys rushed out of the bathroom. “Mommy can we get something?” The mom got up and told them to sit and wait for her while she went to the restroom. “Don’t move. And, don’t bother anyone.”
As soon as she left, the boys obediently sat and stared at the ice in the field beyond the parking lot. Ray yelled over to them. “Hey, do you guys mind giving us a hand back here?” Ray and Kate were standing behind the counter waving them on. The two kids exchanged glances and then ran to help.
Minutes later, Mom exited the restroom to see her boys sitting on the counter trying to fill a napkin holder. Kate was giving instructions while Ray was making the burgers. “I am so sorry,” Mom said. “Come on Thad and Will. We’ve gotta go, kids.”
“Sorry, ma’am,” Ray said. “I’m afraid the boys already placed an order. Not to worry, they’re working it off right now.”
The mom found herself somewhere between humiliation and extreme gratefulness. It’s a thin line, sometimes. Kate sensed the dilemma, and handed her towel to Ray. “Finish up, Big Guy,” she said. She led Mom to a booth and the two sat and chatted.
It was a good visit. Ray moved two tables together and they all sat and ate burgers, onion rings and fries. And, washed it all down with malts and Cokes. Ray and Kate weren’t really all that hungry, but Ray thought the moment would be less awkward for Deanna, the mom, if they all shared a meal.
Before leaving, Ray lifted Thad and Will up and let them each honk the horn. They all had to say, “Yeehaw! Y’all come back!” after each honking. Even Kate joined in. She never looked lovelier to Ray.
As the Buick headed Dallasward, Ray walked over to the cash register, rang up the tab and paid for the meal. Kate, walked over and shook her head. “You’re a real wonder, Ray Palmer. You know that? And, how much did you slip into Deanna’s purse?”
“Hey, my folks and I agreed not to exchange gifts. So, I had to do something. But forget that. Now, it’s your turn to tell me why you decided to work on Christmas."
“Oh, that’s easy,” Kate said. “I’m saving for college. Dad said he’d match whatever I can raise. Oh, and I knew he was paying double time, so I jumped at the chance.”
“You’re kidding.” Ray said. “He sure didn’t make that deal with me.” Kate shot back, “He did too. He told me we were both getting double.” Ray smiled. Yeah, Frank had him figured out.
“I’m going to Angelo State next fall,” Kate continued. “You know, I might even get a scholarship.”
“I’m sure you will. Every volleyball coach is looking for a good setter. I’ve noticed that you’re pretty good. And, I must say, you look strangely attractive in your volleyball outfit.”
“Strangely attractive? What do you mean by that?”
Too bold. He was headed for Rejection City. Probably be elected mayor. So, he ignored the question. “Look, kid. I doubt we get many more customers. Why don’t you head over to your boyfriend’s house? I’ll fill out the time-sheet for you. I doubt your Dad will fire either one of us for it.”
“My boyfriend? You mean Cory?” Her laugh came out as more of a snort. “Really? You don’t need me here?”
Ray tried to sound persuasive. “Look at this place. We’re a restroom with a kitchen.” Kate nodded, walked behind the counter to get her purse, gave Ray a quick peck on the cheek and then headed for the door. “Merry Christmas Raymond Palmer.” She squeezed on the horn before leaving. There was no response from Ray, so she turned and gave him a questioning look.
Ray smiled and quietly said, “Yeehaw. You come back.” Kate shook her head and then got into her Dad’s old pickup and drove off.
Ray walked over to the booth nearest the counter and plopped himself down. He rested his legs across the bench seat and leaned his back against the wall. Looking out the window across the room, he sat and stared… at nothing in particular. He wasn’t in his trance long before the sound of the opening door startled him out of his deep think. He looked up to see an exasperated-looking, Kate.
The girl walked briskly to the counter and tossed her purse behind it. She then picked up her apron and strapped it on. With her hands on her hips and her weight shifted slightly to the right, she said, “Okay, Mr. Palmer. Tell me exactly what you meant by ‘strangely attractive?’”
There were no more customers at Frank’s Tastee Freeze for the remainder of the shift. Oh, Emily Bounder did bring over a deep plate of ice cream Santa cake for them. It was delivered with a hug. “It’s the bestest cake we ever had,” she said. Then added, “Oh, and the hug was from Mommy.”
Kate and Ray sat across from one another in the booth and just talked. They took only a couple of bites of the cake, sharing the same spoon. At one point, Kate, pushed the bowl to the side and reached over and took hold of Ray’s hand. Ray was pretty sure his heart might explode. The conversation never lagged. And, the time sped by like a meteor. But, then, that’s to be expected when two people share the best Christmas ever.
Merry Christmas to you and your family, from the Hayters.
You can contact Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org